January 6, 2010

The Year In Books 2009: Best Experimental Novels

The Year in Books 2009: A CCLaP essay series

(For an introduction to this series, as well as links to all four parts, please click here.)

Because they get such an unfair shake at so many other places, one of the things I most like to do here at CCLaP is cover the topic of experimental literature as deeply as I can, and to provide write-ups that are fair and informative even while acknowledging the mere fringe interest such books generate among the general public. Here below, a look again at my eight favorite such books of 2009, listed as always in alphabetical order.

The Babylonian Trilogy, by Sebastien Doubinsky
The Babylonian Trilogy
By Sebastien Doubinsky

I became a big fan last year of Peter Crowther's PS Publishing, a British small press known primarily for gorgeous editions of horror and New Weird titles; and one of the best that they put out in 2009 was The Babylonian Trilogy, a series of novellas from celebrated French author Sebastien Doubinsky, here making their English-language debut. Doubinsky essentially reimagines New York for these stories, as a place similar to but slightly more fantastical than the real thing, and including such alt-history touches as an American military quagmire in Cuba instead of Vietnam; he then sets a series of noir tales within such an environment, only with most of them containing the kinds of magical-realism details you would expect from such a project. Subtle in its otherworldliness, this is the type of genre project perfect for those who don't read much of it, people who are perhaps fans of shows like Lost and authors like Michael Chabon, and I have to admit that this was one of my favorite fantastical reading experiences of 2009.

Blankety Blank, by D. Harlan Wilson
Blankety Blank: A Memoir of Vulgaria
By D. Harlan Wilson

Many of the books being highlighted today received not exactly glowing reviews when I first looked at them, mostly because of my reviews needing to reflect the general audience that CCLaP's readership is; but that doesn't stop any of these titles from being great genre exercises for those who specifically like that genre, which is why I'm often saying here that scores at CCLaP don't always reflect the level of passion that certain people will feel for that book. And a perfect example of this is D. Harlan Wilson's Blankety Blank, the latest by this underground author with a healthy cult audience; because the fact is that this is about as good as the zany world of "bizarro fiction" gets, even if that world by its very definition is going to appeal only to a small slice of the overall population. For those not familiar with the subgenre, imagine the literary equivalent of an old Warner Brothers cartoon, an outlandishly unrealistic reality many times created specifically to make a political point; for example, here when the suburban family at the heart of our story decides to build a glittering silver silo the size of a skyscraper in their backyard for no particular reason, you pretty well know that you have now firmly left Updike and Cheever territory. Funny and perplexing, not necessarily in that order, this is a must-read for fans of Joss Whedon and Mystery Science Theatre 3000.

Broken Bulbs, by Eddie Wright
Broken Bulbs
By Eddie Wright

Who knew that the twisted surrealist William S. Burroughs would end up leaving such a pervasive cultural legacy by the time the 2000s rolled around? Known formally as "body horror," this subgenre of his invention largely consists of stream-of-consciousness fever dreams that often poetically examine such squeamish topics as addiction and mutilation; and one of the best stories of this type I read in 2009 was Eddie Wright's Broken Bulbs, even more remarkable in that this is Wright's literary debut as well. A potent cocktail of equal parts David Lynch and Eli Roth, this slim book is not for the faint of heart; but those who like their coffee strong will highly enjoy this look at a drug which literally increases the creative potential of a human brain (or a "chemical muse" as its users call it), and the toll it takes on a hapless B-writer who becomes addicted to it. A great choice for those who are fans of early David Cronenberg, and I'm looking forward now to more from this talented newcomer.

The Late Work of Margaret Kroftis, by Mark Gluth
The Late Work of Margaret Kroftis
By Mark Gluth

So why do I wait until the actual new year to do my best-of lists for the year before? Well, so that I'll have a chance to catch little treasures like these that just squeak in under the wire, with me originally reviewing this novella literally in the week between Christmas and New Year's Day. Part of a whole series of avant-garde books picked and edited by edgeplay author Dennis Cooper, Kroftis is not experimental from a writing aspect but rather a plotting one; to be specific, although the story itself is easily readable, it contains no three-act structure at all, but rather takes a small detail from the end of one chapter to start a tangential yet completely different story in the next, moving at the beginning for example from a look at an elderly writer with dementia to the autobiographical short story that serves as her suicide note, then immediately to a group of young hipsters years later who are attempting to make an indie film out of the story. The very definition of "inventive," this was a headscratching delight, and I wish that more of these smart, challenging types of books would get published by all the small presses of the world.

Muffy, by S.T. Gulik
Muffy: or A Transmigration of Selves
By S.T. Gulik

Transgression! BOO! Although a patience-stretching handful by their very definition, I happen to think that all of us could use at least a couple of projects in our lives each year designed specifically to push boundaries through the embrace of taboos; and one of the best examples I saw in 2009 was S.T. Gulik's disgusting yet oddly compelling Muffy: or A Transmigration of Selves. A violence-filled erotic story in the tradition of such Victorian classics as The Story of O., Gulik updates the debauchery to reflect our gonzo, riot-grrl times, crafting a lesbian love story of sorts between a full-time masochist addicted to risky behavior and a sadistic professional artist who makes sculptures of pain literally out of her victims' body parts (a big hit among the Illuminati members secretly running the government, don't you know). Silly, nauseous, and undeniably filthy, those who will be fans of Muffy already know who they are, even if they're not in the habit of telling anyone else.

Murderland: h8, by Garrett Cook
Murderland: h8
By Garrett Cook

One of the great advantages of being a genre author, and especially when it comes to inventive horror, is that the audience often doesn't need the strongest or most airtight storyline possible, as long as that author delivers a series of stunning visual images and clever concepts; take for example Garrett Cook's Murderland: h8, the first in a whole series of coming novels exploring quite an intriguing alternate universe. The US now a post-democracy (and possibly post-apocalyptic) society, Cook imagines a nation full of vast sections where murder is legal, as long as certain rules are followed; this then lets him construct an entire culture to go with this new reality, including street gangs that run around dressed as their favorite historical serial killer, and even a cable channel devoted to turning the best of these monsters into reality-show celebrities. A great choice for comics lovers looking for fast-paced text-based novels, this bloody actioner is sure to give even the most blase of you at least a few nightmares.

A Naked Singularity, by Sergio De La Pava
A Naked Singularity
By Sergio De La Pava

Sometimes a book will come along that seems like it's going to be a straightahead tale, just to have it turn out to be mostly a showcase for that author's command of language and story, a book filled with endless digressions and inventive subplots; Thomas Pynchon is perhaps the most famous of such iconoclasts, but you can also think of people like Don DeLillo and David Foster Wallace, all three of whom we ironically think of as one-man genres unto themselves. And now you can add Sergio De La Pava to this list, whose long-suffering self-published debut A Naked Singularity seems at first to be a typical crime noir, but quickly turns into a much bigger and more complicated thing than that. Set within the already Kafkaesque world of New York's public defender office, it's a look at an overworking young Latino attorney named Casi and the talky circles of people around him (like his fellow wise-cracking lawyers, the stoner hipsters who live across the hall from him in Brooklyn, his "Ugly Betty" style Hispanic extended family, etc); one day a blabbermouth client lets on about a major yet security-light drug deal that will be going down soon in the city, which sets the events in motion for the caper plot that fuels the second half of the book, as well as the disastrous repercussions when the caper goes wrong, like it always seemingly does in noirs. But like Pynchon, the whole point of reading A Naked Singularity is not for the boilerplate plot itself, but rather the remarkable way that De La Pava actually constructs his scenes, his Mamet-like mastery over tough, slangy dialogue, and the endless side stories that the main character is seemingly always spinning off in his narration, born from sometimes the most blase occurrences. A tough sell but a highly rewarding read, this 700-page doorstop is immensely worth tackling, especially for all you Infinite Jest fans out there.

The Painting and the City, by Robert Freeman Wexler
The Painting and the City
By Robert Freeman Wexler

And then here finally is yet another superior New Weird novel from PS Publishing, by a highly regarded yet only modestly-selling genre veteran who I actually first became a fan of a few years ago, because of his story collection Psychological Methods To Sell Should Be Destroyed; it's basically two stories in one, not just the tale of a mysterious painting discovered under mysterious circumstances in modern New York, but also the Victorian tale of the painting itself, a conspiracy-laced story that leads us down some strange Lovecraftian holes at times. Like John Crowley or Tim Powers, then, Wexler uses this milieu not to write a thriller but rather to craft a subtle, slow-moving story, in which we slowly get glimpses of an entire alternative existence that might or might not be surrounding us at all times without most of us knowing; and along the way he throws in some really inspired touches, for example like making Charles Dickens an adventure-seeking character within the actual story, who just happens to be visiting New York during the time of these events and manages to get sucked into them. One of my favorite genre authors out there right now, and it's a shame that he's not as well-known yet as many of his peers.

Coming tomorrow, my favorite list of all, the highly anticipated CCLaP Guilty Pleasure Awards™ . I hope you'll get a chance to come back again then.

Filed by Jason Pettus at 12:52 PM, January 6, 2010. Filed under: Arts news | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Profiles | Reviews |